Where’s the Depth in SEC Basketball?
At a high level, a conference that had three teams in the Sweet Sixteen, two in the Final Four, and the National Runner-up last season should be considered a top basketball conference. Throw in three titles in the last eight seasons and you should have one of the best conferences in basketball. Sadly, outside of the occasional good season from Vanderbilt and Tennessee under Bruce Pearl, this conference has done very little outside of Florida and Kentucky. Very little is actually a complement to the rest of the SEC as the SEC has received as many tournament bids in the last two years combined (six) as the Atlantic 10 did last season alone . In the last six seasons, the SEC has only exceeded four teams in the NCAA field once – with five in the 2011 tournament – and received only three bids a whopping three times! That includes only three bids the last two seasons with fourteen teams in the conference. Other than Kentucky and Florida only Tennessee has gotten out of the first weekend in the last six seasons. Before that, to find another SEC school that made the second weekend of the tournament you have to go back to Vanderbilt in 2007.
Things haven’t started any better after the first weekend. Although it’s admittedly early, the SEC has already suffered six combined losses. That’s more than the Big East, Big Ten, ACC, and Big 12 have lost combined! Granted Tennessee went down against a ranked VCU team, and Auburn was shellacked on the road at Colorado. The losses include Missouri going down at home to the Kangaroos of the University of Missouri-Kansas City. General rule of thumb: it’s not good when you lose to a state school that needs to specify the city they’re located in unless it’s UCLA. An admittedly banged up Florida team just lost at home to what could be a surprising Miami Hurricanes team in the ACC, but when your conference’s second best team loses at home to a likely mid-tier team in another conference it’s worth noting. Worse yet, likely ACC bottom-feeder Georgia Tech knocked off Georgia, who many in the SEC listed as a school on the rise under Mark Fox. Again, just one game and it was on the road, but concerning. Worse yet, consensus top-six preseason pick Ole Miss just lost at home to a Charleston Southern team coming off a 13-18 season in 2013-14. Add that all up and it could be another long season for the SEC as a conference. At least Kentucky looks…well…let’s just say they’re doing alright.
Okay, okay you get it. Rough tip-off weekend for the SEC, but it’s just November and it’s not even Thanksgiving. Well it’s been November plus nearly a decade of below average conference play outside of Florida, Kentucky, Tennessee, and for a stretch Vanderbilt. How is a conference that holds such significant recruiting advantages in football so bad at basketball? And how do they fix it? If I had those answers definitely, I think SEC Commissioner Michael Slive will be giving me a call (Feel free to post in the comments section, Mike!). While the ‘football school’ mantra will be tossed around as a blanket explanation covering lack of fan support, tradition, and allocation of resources, I don’t think that gets to the root of the problem. The problem has been program instability. Only three coaches out of fourteen programs have been employed at their current schools for more than five seasons. Obviously program instability hurts in several ways from lack of recruiting consistency to the loss of players due to transfer. However, what’s more telling from this rapid turnover of coaches is the type of coaches that have been hired throughout the SEC. In football, a middle of the road program like Arkansas can go out and lure one of the more established coaches in the Big 10 in Bret Bilema to Fayetteville. In basketball, mid-major stars and unproven assistants have been the norm.
However, times are starting to change in the SEC. You can already see the Tide, well maybe not Alabama, but the collective tide turning. Arkansas and South Carolina brought in proven major conference coaches in recent years in Mike Anderson and Frank Martin. Both look to be programs on the rise with Arkansas a potential tournament team this season. Auburn hired Bruce Pearl back into the conference to revive a dormant basketball program. Johnny Jones, a relative unknown from North Texas, is about to bring in one of the top recruiting classes in the country in 2015 to College Station as Aggies. My theory is the unprecedented television revenue and exposure these schools will begin to receive from the SEC Network will give this conference the assets to lure top coaches and top recruits more frequently. I think you’ve seen similar results from their network help boost Big 10 basketball which had fallen on hard times as recently as six or so years ago including only four teams in the NCAA tournament in 2008. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Big 10 network was launched in August of 2007, and as the network picked up steam so did Big 10 basketball. Were there other factors involved in the Big 10’s rise? Absolutely. This isn’t a guarantee, and it won’t be an overnight fix for the SEC, but the seeds for success have been planted. While this season may not be the year the SEC exceeds four or five tournament bids, I think the SEC could emerge as a top-three basketball conference within the next four years with programs like LSU, Auburn, Arkansas, and Vandy on the upswing with chances to establish themselves as consistently relevant programs.